There are moments in everyone’s life when as a person, you are altered. When something inside of you shifts and that shift marks the end of something, the beginning of something new.
Over the years, I have had many experiences that changed me, my perspective, my attitude. I was only 8 when my dad died and life altered drastically. Not all of them are so dramatic. Some shifts are small, a slight tweak, a gentle dip. Some resonate for years through the unintended consequences of prior decisions. Some last only a few seconds, yet leave their mark as a direct turning point.
Unfortunately, we had one of those moments this past week. L and I both look the same on the outside as when we left, but are bound in a new way by the events of Thursday, in a remote jungle river in Mexico. This is as much of the story as I am able to put into words.
Thursday was exactly like Wednesday and Tuesday before it, muggy and oppressive. After getting up early 3 days in a row to disembark at each port, we were all tired and crabby. Tempers were short and grumpiness was extreme, especially between E and L. Which is not exactly new.
We got off of our air conditioned bus and started our jungle hike, which was exactly 100 times harder than the brochures suggested. This did not increase the love between E and L, nor did it do any wonders for the shreds of patience I was hanging onto tenuously.
So, when we got tothe swimming hole, everyone was pretty fast to jump in. The water was cold and refreshing, and below the waterfall, the current was not terribly strong.
There were several adults in the water, and I was one of them, keeping track of N in the deeper parts, watching T to be sure he didn’t jump off rocks too close to the white water. Once, N got in too deep and I was not as close to him as I would have liked. Between his doggie paddling and me pushing him, he easily made it across the swimming hole towards the flat sandy bottom.
We had been in the water 30 minutes or so when L started jumping from a big rock on the opposite side with her friends from the ship. (Sorry for the blurry photo. R took it)
And from here, it starts to get fuzzy in some areas and crazy in others. I can not figure out why I was standing where I was. I think I must have been following Nate around. Seriously, there was no other reason I would have been standing where I was.
And from where I was standing, I had a perfectly clear view of L floating lazily along the current towawrds the shallow sandy area. She was smiling. The sun was even reflecting off of her braces and she shook the water from her hair. I have no idea where Nate was. I do know that no one was watching L except for me. And no one else swimming or eating by us saw what happened next, except for T. He saw it all as well and it petrified him too.
The current picked L up and started pulling her towards the edge. She isn’t sure why she aimed for the grate, but both of us think it might have been her thought to catch it and not spin over. I’m not sure either of us- or anyone on the river- realized that the grate was not flush with the rock edge, but was open.
The grate caught her and pulled her under it. Please look at that photo one more time and notice that every single person has their back to the danger. This photo was taken after L got trapped under it, but is no different from how everyone was standing while I watched her sucked through.
In a flash, the only thing I could see was her right hand clutching the metal on one side and her left arm banging and pushing against the gate on the other.
Did I shove Nate towards safety? Had he already swum there on his own? Did I leave him in the deep area to possibly drown as well? I have no idea. I just started swimming as fast as I could. And, because the current was pulling me towards the edge, my swimming wasn’t very fast.
As I got to her, her arm stopped waving so hard. There was no frantic banging on the metal, but a limp flailing. She had not pulled her head above water for at least a minute, maybe longer. Her eyes were wide, pleading with me, her breath sputtered out and she tried to suck in air, but quickly clamped her lips against the water which rushed in instead. Pleading turned to panic and as I looked in her eyes, I was filled with dread that I was not going to be able to save her. Bubbles of air escaped her lungs. She had held her breath as long as she possibly could, and she suddenly looked so serene. Like she was done fighting. Her eyes told me the whole story, “I love you mom, but I’m going to die. And it’s OK.” But it was not OK with me.
I reached my left arm out as far as possible and grabbed a handful of hair, wrenching her nose and lips above water. She sipped in the smallest amount of air, mixed with water, and the current pulled her away from me again, burying her face once more.
I felt the current sucking me towards the grate, banging my hips into the rocks L was stuck on. I grabbed her armpits and pulled with everything I had, lifting her head just enough for her face to break fully free. She immediately started coughing and sucking in ragged breaths. He body was limp, her hand still drumming uselessly against the metal. As I repositioned my feet for more leverage, I realized I couldn’t possibly get her out before her ribs got broken- if it wasn’t already too late. I started screaming for help. I have never been so thrilled to have such a big mouth. Because until I yelled, not one other of the 50+ people at the river that day had any idea she had silently slid under the grate and gotten stuck, unable to breathe.
Two of the men swimming there heard me scream and rushed over. One of them wrapped his arms around me and pulled as I continued to push with my feet against the metal and rock. But her leg was stuck under her, and the extra blood had made it swell. He repositioned his grip and pulled on both of us, just as she slid sideways a bit, freeing her leg. As soon as she popped out from under the grate, someone else grabbed her and pulled her ashore. I was unable to help because once she came loose, the current pulled me up against the stones and I was stuck. Our good Samaritan came back a second time and helped me position myself to get my footing and get myself out of the water.
Once I was on shore, I started shaking and sobbing. I didn’t know where any of my other kids were, I had no idea if N was swimming or on dry land, or if L had broken bones, crushed ribs, lungs full of water. I just stood there and shook and cried. A woman came over and told me that L needed me, as she was appearing to go into shock. And it wasn’t until then that my brain kicked back in and started thinking about the possibility of serious injury from all of the pressure wedging her against the bottom edge of the grate. And still, I couldn’t go. L is so sensitive to emotion, if I had gone up there shaking and crying, she would have gone fully over the edge into both shock and hysteria.
I forcibly pulled myself together and started assessing her. Imagine my dismay when I found the marks on her ribs.
Her knees were even worse.
But the miracle of all is that other than me being unable to close my eyes without seeing that resigned look in L’s eyes, neither of us has any long term damage.
If I hadn’t been watching her and thinking how happy she finally looked? If I hadn’t been congratulating myself for choosing to swim in the jungles of Mexico?
Even though T saw her and was yelling at people to help, it would have ended so much differently. A few more seconds and she would have been breathing liquid. Another minute or two and I would not be typing any of this. In reality, it is nothing like the scenarios every parent imagines when they hear of such things happening to other children. It’s so much more than the punch in the stomach you expect it to be. I looked into her eyes and I watched her choose to die because she recognized that she could not save herself. And she was positive no one else had seen her either.
This is the type of shifting that takes a blink of an eye but lasts a lifetime. And all I can do is tell myself it was not such a big deal, that every parent faces moments like these or worse. I can feel gratitude for the outcome, but I must push away the horror of the event. The knowledge.
The muscles in my back? The ones I gladly sacrificed to save my daughter? They have not stopped reminding me that this is going to continue to feel like a big deal for at least another week.